SSEC logo Sutherland Shire Environment Centre  

Submission to Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Proposed Replacement Nuclear Reactor

Should it be built at Lucas Heights - or anywhere?

Initial Comments

Since its inception in 1991, the Centre has made submissions to a wide variety of Government inquiries and committees on many subjects and at many levels. These include local Council, State and Commonwealth Government, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the United Kingdom House of Lords. The latter related to the disposal of radioactive wastes and how Australia was connected to their massive and costly problems. We have not, however, had the pleasure of being invited to take part in any previous Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. Thank you for this opportunity.

Where this submission relates to the finances of this proposal it will be mainly in the form of questions as to the costs which have been presented by ANSTO and those which it has decided, in its own interest, to exaggerate or to ignore. The total costs of the process have by no means been provided. It will be the difficult task of this Committee to get to the truth of the matter and present it to the Cabinet. But therein lies the problem.

The Process

The Project was approved by Cabinet in May 1997 but not made public until September of that year. The reason for the delay? The Government was in the midst of another Environmental Impact Study which, if it had been approved, would have placed an international 24 hour airport at Holsworthy. To have imposed a new nuclear reactor in the same area at the same time would have been political suicide. Thousands of local residents had given 18 months of their lives opposing the airport and were exhausted. So, on 3 September, the airport idea was aborted but later the same day the Government presented Sutherland Shire with the reactor.

We were told that an EIS would take place - but only on the suitability of the Lucas Heights site. That a site selection process had already taken place but no details could be made public because it was "Cabinet in Confidence". This was a cowardly means of telling us that there had been no alternative site selection study. Cabinet had totally disregarded the recommendations of the 1993 McKinnon report which clearly stated that, if there was a decision in favour of a new reactor, Lucas Heights was not necessarily the best site. That a proper study should be made with the views of the local community taken into consideration.

The reason for this omission was clear. No other community in Australia would have accepted a reactor. Lucas Heights was chosen because it existed, not because it was suitable.

The Environmental Impact Study

The process here was flawed from the outset. The proponent was ANSTO, a Government organisation operating under the Minister for Science. ANSTO is also the chief, and often the only, advisor to all Government Departments including of course the Department of the Environment. So it was given the task of justifying the site as being suitable. In the end the EIS proved to be nothing more than another advisory document which would enable the Cabinet to justify its 1997 decision.

ANSTO was provided with $6 million to prepare the EIS and to start off the tendering process. The community was denied access to research funding and was also refused the opportunity to have public debates with either ANSTO management, the Minister for Science, members of his Department, our local Federal Member Mrs Vale or those few Sutherland Shire Councillors who supported the proposal. All the "experts" who could have put their case to the public refused to appear.

It should be pointed out that several of those Councillors, including the Mayor, had been members of the ANSTO Task Force, set up in march 1997 to oppose the setting up of either a reprocessing plant or a new reactor at Lucas Heights. That committee included members of the community, including the writer. Indeed the Mayor was stating his opposition in a television interview only a week before the announcement was made on 3 September 1997. Two days later he and the others changed sides without giving their reasons. Pressure from Canberra had enabled them to see the light!

So it was left to community groups to arrange, at their own cost, public meetings, sending invitations to the above interested parties and leaving empty chairs pointing out their non-arrival. The audience was left to hear only the opponents' point of view which of course was not the intended purpose of the meetings . To advertise these meetings posters were placed on telegraph poles around the Shire. Within hours they had been removed, not by ANSTO staff as was initially thought, but by Council staff under instructions from the Mayor. The same Mayor who allowed such signs to remain on display during the 18 month campaign against the Holsworthy airport. Such is the political process in this Shire.

The Minister

Did anything else happen to raise our hopes of common sense prevailing? On 3 February, the Minister for Science was interviewed by Sydney Radio Station JJJ. Mr Nick Minchin is the Minister with the responsibility for the final decision. He had held the position for only a few weeks and was not yet up to speed, but gave his answers firmly and confidently.

When asked by the interviewer "Will a new reactor be built at Lucas Heights?" he replied without hesitation, "Yes". He made no qualifying reference to the EIS process which was still underway with, apparently, no decision having been made. Was this an oversight - by a very experienced politician - or an appalling indication that he knew the result of the EIS in advance? Which is exactly what was expected by this community when it was announced that ANSTO would prepare the EIS. The fox approving the design of the chicken house.

In a further comment, the Minister showed either contempt for Shire residents or a total lack of knowledge of the subject when he claimed that there was majority support for a reactor at Lucas Heights. Wrong again! There have been three public opinion polls since 1993, which included questions as to the preferability of Lucas Heights as a site for a new reactor. All were overwhelmingly against it. They included a recent (1998) poll commissioned by Sutherland Shire Council in which 77% said that they were concerned at the suggestion. The level of concern ranged from "extreme" to "somewhat". ANSTO commissioned another in 1997 in which 83% of the Sutherland people polled and 88% of those from Liverpool/Bankstown said that it was not a preferred site. That poll cost the taxpayers $40,000.

In an earlier poll taken by the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre in 1993 at the time of the Research Reactor Review, 81% said that any new reactor should be sited well away from residential areas. A figure remarkably similar to that obtained by ANSTO!

The results of these polls were ignored by the Minister and all but dismissed in ANSTO's EIS. It preferred to use the comments taken from focus groups during the Research Reactor Review. Even though the pollsters at that time, Morgan and Reark said that their results could only be seen as preliminary and that a lot more work was needed.

Did Environment Australia take ANSTO's opinion (advice) on community opinion? Did it have access to those quantitative polls? It seems not.

The Minister also stated in the interview that all the spent fuel used by HIFAR which came originally from the USA had been returned to that country. Hopelessly incorrect. But this is the person who will make the final decision on the status of Lucas Heights for the next 150 years. How can the community have any confidence in either the EIS process or the main players in the game?

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works

Following our disillusion with the legislative process it is with great respect I must ask the Committee how much influence it can have on the final outcome? Am I correct in understanding that it is comprised of back-benchers? If the Cabinet has made a decision and the Ministers for the Environment and for Science are members of that Cabinet, what would be its response if the Committee came to the conclusion that the economics did not support the proposal? How many times has such a situation occurred since its establishment in 1913? What was the outcome?

The Environment Centre has been through a harrowing year preparing submissions for Draft EIS Guidelines, for the Draft EIS, for the Final EIS Supplement and for the Senate Economics Reference Committee. From the outset there was little to raise our confidence in the process at any level. When the Supplement, Part 3 was due for release, Environment Australia stressed that "under statutory legislation, there was no specific obligation for the public to have any right to reply". When asked if it would at least read any comments received, the reply was "Yes, but under the terms of the legislation, there was no compulsion for the Department to take any action". Very reassuring! But the community had relied on "the system" to perform on its behalf and that Environment Australia would dismiss the EIS as presented to it by ANSTO.

Project Costs

The total costs associated with this project are not merely those of the reactor, the high tech. equipment that goes with it and the buildings. There are so many costs about which no one will speak and it is up to this Committee to flush them out. This submission will not be able to say what these costs are in dollars but hopefully it will point you in the right direction.

The Reactor

ANSTO presented the EIS with a reactor which it could only describe vaguely. There is no specification, the size is approximate and no quotations have been received so far. The estimated figure quoted is $286.4 million. As it is only an estimate it is strange that it was not rounded off to the nearest million but no matter. Where did it come from? An estimate made in 1992 from a "market survey" and updated to 1997 dollars!

  • Has there been no movement in costs since 1997? It is now 1999!
  • Has there been allowance for increases between now and 2005?
  • Will contracts be made on a fixed basis? Firm until 2005?
  • Will the prices be subjected to GST? Should it be GST exempt when food is not?
  • If the price escalates what is the process? Does ANSTO merely ask for more taxpayers' money?
  • Or does it scale down the project by buying less neutron scattering equipment or cutting waste?
The estimated $286.4 million is said to include buildings and infrastructure on the site. Great stress has been put on local input, presumably builders. They would also need the answers to the above questions. It is rare to come across local tradesmen who will accept work on a fixed cost over a five year period.

The Research Reactor Review (RRR) referred to Environment and Health costs. Its report stated that it had "restricted its evaluation to consider the economic benefits of the commercial aspects of the proposal. This means that neither the possible scientific and national interest benefits nor the unquantifiable and unestablished environmental and health costs, were measured in this analysis". (RRR p 137, 11.4) (emphasis added.)

Will the Committee examine this or merely accept ANSTO's assertion of zero effects to either the environment or to health?

Another interesting submission to the RRR was from Professor John Stocker who was, at that time the head of CSIRO. He is now Australia's Chief Scientist. Could you call him to give his 1999 opinion? Some of his opinions were:
  • "For the foreseeable future the direct commercial returns appear unlikely to justify the investment in a new reactor and alternative means of supplying research and commercial needs may be more cost effective."

  • "If there are overseas sources that can produce the required isotopes at the same or lower cost than an indigenous source, and in a timely manner, then the argument for an Australian reactor on these grounds is severely undermined." ANSTO has refused to answer questions on this, claiming "Commercial in Confidence".
Is the Committee able to challenge this claim and contact overseas suppliers to get their views?

Professor Stocker continued, "CSIRO is of the general opinion that more productive research could be funded for the cost of a reactor. While users of the existing facility may be disadvantaged, alternative source options are generally available in other countries" (Page 8). ANSTO does not agree with this but, interestingly, when the small reactor, MOATA was closed down permanently, with no advance notice to its users, its response was that "they would have no trouble in finding similar facilities overseas."

Professor Stocker's submission was short and terse. Not surprisingly he was not asked for his opinion when the Cabinet made its 1997 decision.

Cost of Neutron Scattering Instruments

In the annex to Sutherland Shire Council's submission to the RRR ( Frank Berkhout, Annexure E page 1-2) pointed out that "Research reactors usually have further research equipment added to them. The high price of scientific equipment means that this accounts for a substantial proportion of the reactor's final cost. In quoting costs and prices of research reactors, vendors and operators are usually unspecific about whether such additional equipment and instrumentation is included."

"Final nuclear costs cannot be accurately predicted from the basis of detailed plans drawn up before the project starts." (Annexure E page 5) If he is correct then the Committee really has a problem. You are being asked to approve funding without the minimum basis of any detailed plans - of anything. Neither the reactor nor its associated equipment.

ANSTO says in its submission, 2.22 page 69, that the cost estimate includes the neutron scattering instruments. Yet earlier, on page 45/6, para.140 we are told that the instrument programme will occur in two stages, the second phase over a five year period.

Does the $286.4 million include the second stage?

How could an extra cost estimate which goes out to the year 2010 be seen to be anything but a guess?

However it is said to be part of the project and costs should not be hidden, either from the Government or the public. The suggestion that the extended programme "will encourage investment in the necessary specialist skills and capabilities since return on the investment will be long term and substantial" is typical of the inflated claims which have been made by the nuclear industry for the past fifty years.

ANSTO also claims that "The construction of neutron scattering instruments....... will offer a significant incentive to high-technology industries to develop and/or enhance specialist skills and form a solid basis for expansion into related areas of advanced scientific design and development." These are the same claims rejected by the RRR which formed the opinion that a complete cost benefit analysis of the case for a new reactor could not be done because of the inescapable arbitrariness of the financial values put on the national interest and benefits from science aspects. Economic evaluation is not possible if major benefits or costs cannot be measured in any meaningful way.

It is no coincidence that Environment Australia refused to make a cost benefit analysis part of the EIS. It knew that it would destroy ANSTO's case.

On the other hand the McKinnon report found that "There does not appear to be any prospect of commercial and industry equity capital" What has changed? Only that ANSTO, with part of its $6 million used to fund its EIS, has obtained an assessment from Access Economics to back up its claims. Such a report should be passed to independent experts, who are not aligned to the Government, for their opinion.

Reactor Wastes and an Australian Domestic Waste Dump

The so-called national waste repository, the site for which is at present being examined in South Australia, must be seen for what it is, an ANSTO waste dump. In spite of the other radioactive waste scattered around Australia from industry and hospitals which will go to that eventual site, the greatest part will come from the Lucas Heights reactor(s). Without that dump the new reactor project cannot go ahead.

Even those local politicians from Sutherland Shire who, mistakenly, have supported a new reactor, have qualified their support by insisting that all waste must be removed from the site. Anywhere will do. The ethics of passing it on to another place and another community does not worry them.

Since responsibility for the national repository was put in the domain of the Department of Primary Industries and Energies, all attempts to obtain even a rough estimate of its cost has been fruitless. However, as it is an essential part of the new reactor project, the Committee must be able to come up with some figures. Some of the questions which come readily.
  • The cost of a repository for low level and short lived intermediate level waste.

  • The length of life of this repository.

  • Its annual running costs.

  • Would it be Government or privately operated?

  • If it is to be "user pays", what will the costs be to ANSTO (the public purse)?

  • What would be the cost of an alternative plan should the low level dump not eventuate? Is there such a plan?
In a letter to the Australian 25 March 1999, Senator Minchin stated that "Australia is meeting the responsibility we have to effectively manage the small volume of radioactive waste we produce from the scientific, industrial and medical use of radioactive materials, including wastes arising from the operation of the HIFAR research reactor and the replacement reactor. A repository site for Australia's low and short-lived intermediate radioactive wastes will be identified in the central north region of South Australia later this year."

This statement is typically misleading and tells only half the story. The problem waste from spent nuclear fuel is ignored. ANSTO's currently considered option for dealing with this is to send the spent fuel overseas for reprocessing and then to become responsible for the resultant long lived intermediate level waste when it is returned to Australia. That was its preferred option over the past few years and the reprocessing plant relied on was Dounreay on the northern tip of Scotland. Dounreay closed, giving no advance notice and this caused much scurrying around to find a new reprocesser.

The main reprocessing plants in France and the UK are also under threat of closure and it is unlikely that they will exist for the life of a new reactor. That would require new thinking and options which could include domestic conditioning - a process not unlike reprocessing - or direct disposal of the spent fuel. Each of these options, including that of the returned reprocessing waste from abroad, would require somewhere to put the waste for perhaps thousands of years. The national repository referred to by Minister Minchin would not be suitable and he chose not to mention the matter of the "co-location store" which might be placed at the same site.

But what kind of co-location is envisaged? There has been no public discussion on the subject but questions to Department of Primary Industry brought out, with great difficulty, the fact that it would likely be an "interim" store. When asked what exactly was meant by "interim" the reply was that the stored wastes would be examined and another decision made in about fifty years or so. That is neither long term storage nor long term thinking.

It must be noted that the route advised by the international nuclear industry for the disposal of long lived intermediate level waste is the same as for high level waste i.e. in a deep geological dump. This is not even a gleam in the eye of any Government department and ANSTO says that it has no responsibility in the matter, even though it is the chief advisor to Government on all nuclear matters. So once again, the questions which must be asked by this Committee - and must:
  • What will be the cost of the co-location store for Long Lived Intermediate Level wastes resulting from reprocessing, conditioning or for the storage of spent fuel elements?

  • What would the expected radioactive life of the isotopes contained in these wastes - taking into consideration the daughter isotopes which will be produced?

  • What will be the expected operating life of the co-location store?

  • Will it be interim? If so, please quantify.

  • What will be the annual operating cost of the store?

  • How long would it take to research, design and build a deep underground dump? considering that the search for a low level dump has taken 17 years so far and is still mighty slow.

  • What would be the estimated cost of a deep geological permanent dump for Australian produced waste, assuming that the Pangea Resources proposition does not go ahead?
The last item must be taken into consideration, otherwise it will come as a great shock to the generation which has to face it, the present legislators and their scientific advisors having passed on.

As alternatives and as additions to the waste options currently on the table you should ask for:
  • Costings for above ground storage of spent fuel at Lucas Heights. (In spite of the fact that this is not acceptable to local politicians and the community).

  • The cost of a plant for domestic conditioning of spent fuel.
Once again it should be mentioned that ANSTO usually falls back on the story that it is the Government that decides what is to be done with spent fuel. However no important decisions are made without full input and advice from ANSTO.

Overseas Reprocessing of Spent Fuel

In March 1997 when the then Minister Peter McGauran suggested that domestic reprocessing of Australian spent fuel might be carried out at Lucas Heights, the Member for Hughes, the Mayor and councillors recoiled in horror. What an awful suggestion they said, dirty and dangerous to health and the local environment. They had heard about Sellafield and Dounreay and La Hague and didn't want the situation repeated here.

Yet when it was announced that we were to host another reactor they accepted the advice that ANSTO would ensure that its forty year stock of nuclear waste would be moved off site. Including the spent fuel elements - which would be sent overseas for reprocessing. This was seen by them to be a reasonable way of dealing with the problem at Lucas Heights and the ethical aspect was pushed aside. When the matter of health problems of the residents close to Dounreay was raised with our leaders in Canberra we were told that this was a matter for the UK Government.

After the closure of Dounreay ANSTO said that it was negotiating with Europeans to find an alternative. The name of COGEMA's La Hague plant was mentioned. During the February 3 radio interview on JJJ FM, Minister for Science Minchin said that contracts for reprocessing the fuel elements supplied to us from the UK had been signed. The next 24 hours was confusing. The Minister's office at first agreed with his statement, then reversed the opinion and said it had not. ANSTO meanwhile was claiming that it had been signed two weeks earlier. At a community meeting with representatives of ANSTO last month we were assured that a contract between ANSTO and COGEMA was signed on 26 January.

This confusion raises so many questions, some of which are:
  • Are reprocessing contracts made Government to Government or ANSTO to the Reprocesser?

  • Is ANSTO talking about an agreement or a contract? ANSTO had an agreement with Dounreay but it came to nought.

  • If a signed contract exists, who was the chief negotiator?

  • If ANSTO has negotiated and signed a contract, which Government Department was the overseer?

  • Was the Parliamentary Public Works Committee involved and if not, why not?

  • What are the correct parliamentary processes which must be carried out?

  • Which Minister has the authority to approve reprocessing contracts?

  • Will the contract be released for parliamentary scrutiny and discussion?

  • Will the contract be released for public scrutiny?

  • Has the Senate Economics Reference Committee, which is inquiring into the Lucas Heights proposal, had access to the contract?
One of the main reasons given by the Commonwealth for a new reactor has been "the National Interest". Answers to the questions raised above should be made public as well as releasing the contract or agreement to the public. The Government must realise that it is dealing with an educated population and that the terms "Cabinet-in-Confidence" and "Commercial-in-Confidence" are both offensive and are contrary to the National Interest.

Most importantly the economics of any contract should be examined by this Committee.
  • How do the costs contained in the contract fit in with the $286.4 million budget for a new reactor?

  • What do those costs cover? Reprocessing only or are they inclusive of shipping to and from France?

  • Will the costs be subject to alteration for each shipment?

  • ANSTO claims that it covers spent fuel for the expected forty year life of a new reactor. There will be most certainly huge increases in costs over that period of time. How is this dealt with in the contract?

  • What is the estimated total cost for the reprocessing of all the spent fuel from a new reactor?

  • How can such estimates be made when there is no specification for the reactor or the type of fuel elements that it will use?

  • What are the escape clauses - on either side, in the event of termination of the contract?
Perhaps the most important question from point of view of the honesty - or dishonesty - of the process is how could ANSTO or the Government sign a contract covering the next forty to fifty years be signed on 26 January when the result of the EIS was not announced until 30 March? If, in the unlikely event, Minister Hill had made the correct decision and rejected ANSTO's EIS, would the Australian signatories of the contract have been subject to penalties?

Public Liability

ANSTO now boasts (Page 33, paragraph 88) of a Deed of Indemnity (an insurance?) signed between it and the Commonwealth which protects ANSTO and its staff if it should lose a common law claim following an accident. This does not reassure the local community. Page 34, paragraph 89 implies that individuals would be better off having a fifteen year battle against the Commonwealth in the high court than merely filling out an insurance claim form - that is if the insurance companies here would cover them.

ANSTO's comments, not unexpectedly, miss the point. and are an insult to the local communities. The standard exclusions from Australian insurance policies include only one industrial or scientific area. That "arising from radio-activity or the use, existence or escape of any nuclear fuel, nuclear material, or nuclear waste". We are talking about the ability of the local community to take out personal and property insurance, not having to take the government to court under common law.

The common law option would involve individuals taking ANSTO/the Commonwealth to a high court and proving negligence. The costs would be enormous and would involve the admission of evidence from senior scientists, who would all need paying for their services. In turn, the Commonwealth, which has boundless funds, would contest the case. If it lost then it would appeal. We have seen the system in action before. The Voyager, Agent Orange, the Stolen Generation. Some have dragged out for many years.

In our submission to the EIS Supplement 3 a challenge was put to Environment Australia. That it send details to one or more Australian insurance companies, of ANSTO's claims in the EIS on its emissions, its health studies, its claims as to the safety of the new reactor and that, even in the most extreme accident, nobody could possibly come to any harm. End it with the paragraph on page 11-63 of the Supplement as to the suitability of Lucas Heights as a site for nuclear facilities. Ask them, in light of this overwhelming confidence expressed by ANSTO, if they would reconsider insuring local residents.

If they did not agree, their reasons should be asked. If they would not agree to giving insurance cover then Environment Australia should see that ANSTO's argument cannot meet commercial risk standards and the project should be scrapped.

Attached is a copy of a reply from GIO Insurance Company to a local resident which shows that we are abandoned so far as insurance is concerned.

During a television interview on Sunday 4 April, Senator Hill parroted the ANSTO claim that there could be no harm whatsoever to residents resulting from any accident at the site. He had been assured of this by the world's best experts. When asked by the interviewer could the Senator therefore guarantee the safety of local communities he could not reply and appeared decidedly uncomfortable.

Has the question of public liability been taken into account when assessing the economics of the Lucas Heights site?

SYNROC - Economic benefits?

It is difficult to see what scientific discoveries have been made during the forty years of research at Lucas Heights. The one which is trotted out most often, by Ministers, by Sir Gustav Nossal when speaking about the Pangea international waste dump and by journalists, is Synroc. It is described by ANSTO as being 1000 times better at holding radioactive elements than presently used disposal forms and can be buried immediately. After twenty years and $40 million invested where is it now?

Access Economics refers to a pre-feasibility study made in 1991 by the Synroc Study Group (comprised of ANSTO and some uranium mining companies) which came to the staggering conclusion that "Analysis of the overall market indicated that the management of spent fuel 'equivalent to' Australia's uranium exports would lead to a cash flow of $US 5 billion per annum over a forty year time frame." Access Economics thought that it was too remote and uncertain to feature it in its economic analysis of ANSTO's potential.

But to get a better up to date view of the situation may I refer you to the Hansard of 10 February 1999 pages E 42 - 46 from the Senate Economics Committee. The US is at present looking at the use of Synroc to immobilise waste plutonium from its weapons programme. However there is some doubt as to whether there is any obligation to pay Australia for the intellectual property rights. Apparently there was some sort of agreement but it seems to have lapsed and no one noticed.

Neither did the Minister for Science, senior members of his department or Professor Garnett appear to know what is going on. Yet they are willing to make extravagant claim of economic benefits which a new reactor will bring. It should be noted that similar claims were made to the RRR in 1993 and were rejected.

Better use of the cost of a new reactor

Could the $286.4 million +++ be put to better use, especially in the field of medicine? When Professor Stocker made his 1993 submission to the RRR he said that if a new reactor was funded at the expense of other research then he would oppose it. To overcome this the Government says that the funding will come from general funds rather than specific science or medical research funds. But can this be taken seriously?

A study by medical research professionals will shortly be presented to the Government pointing out the funding deficiencies which are undermining their research. Not a week goes by without an interview on current affairs television describing funding shortfalls to projects which seem, to the lay person, to have national value.

Has the Committee approached Professor Barry Allen for his comments? He was former Chief Research Scientist at ANSTO, having worked there for 35 years. He now works at the St George Hospital researching the use of radiopharmaceuticals for therapeutic use against certain cancers. He is struggling for funding and has said that the cost of a new reactor is a far cry from the optimal expenditure of funds that Australia needs in science and technology.


There are sufficient questions here to cause the Committee to pause and examine very carefully the full costs and the benefits, if any, to Australia. Can the money be better spent? Are the economic benefits, as presented by Access Economics, mere figments of an over-active imagination? Why does the cost of "waste management" not include waste disposal ? Is it good enough to leave the waste problem to future generations? What will the real cost of decommissioning 3 reactors be(including the tiny MOATA, due for decommissioning in several decades)? What will happen if ANSTO cannot get rid of its accumulated waste from the Lucas Heights site?

Will the Committee's report be available to the public? It certainly should be.

Written by Michael Priceman
Nuclear Study Group

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